In Jerusalem, a New Meaning for 'The Wrong Side of the Tracks'

The city's Train Track Park, once a dark, creepy area covered with brush and litter, has been reborn as a lovely place to sit and stroll. But change comes with a cost, and the neighborhood's residents have been hit with the bill.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

A decade ago, when I was visiting Jerusalem from Istanbul, a friend suggested I walk over the old train tracks separating the German Colony from Baka to get to Abu Tor, where I was staying.

“It’ll be close to midnight. I don’t want to cross the tracks at that hour on my own,” I said, suggesting a longer but safer route along the main roads.

The friend was shocked. I had been spending time reporting in Baghdad and Kabul. Did I really give a second’s thought to my safety in Jerusalem? I did, because I’d survived life in those cities by being meticulous about my security; I rarely went anywhere unaccompanied. Jerusalem, I’d learned from personal experience, was no Disneyland – it has its thieves and predators. And at midnight, there was nothing more desolate and creepy than the old train tracks. Dark, overgrown with brush and scattered with various bits of junk and city gardening tools, it was the last place I wanted to walk alone.

Today, I live a few minutes’ walk from the same crossing. But now it's the Train Track Park, which has totally transformed the city – at least this part of it. Wide and well-lit, I can now take a late-night power walk and find myself in good company with other pacers, runners, and bikers, as well as couples on smoochy strolls. On Shabbat and on holidays I can enjoy going for a long walk with my family, letting my two-year-old run ahead or putter along on his three-wheel bimba without a worry.

The best part is that the park is being expanded, and will eventually reach Malha. On Friday, I went for a power walk with two friends to see what it would be like to leave the already well-traversed area that goes through the German Colony and Baka and head further south. The path chugs peacefully past the Katamonim on one side, Mekor Haim and then the Talpiot industrial zone on the other. Eventually it gets to Beit Safafa, an Arab village which was split in two between 1948 and 1967. During that period, the northern third was part of Israeli Jerusalem, and the southern two-thirds were under Jordanian rule.

As we pushed forward in the wind, we were suddenly in the middle of the village, listening to the start of Friday prayers from one of the mosques and looking over an emerald-green soccer field where young boys played. And as we passed the Yad b’Yad School for Bilingual Education, where students learn in both Hebrew and in Arabic, I was filled with a sense that there are some beautiful things happening in Jerusalem. Thanks to the track, people from Beit Safafa and Baka are crossing paths, and not just at the mall. What exactly this means remains to be seen. “Maybe we’ll start a Powerwalkers for Peace,” my friend joked.

But I came home the same day to realize that this improvement comes at a price – a price that the municipality is trying to stick to the people whose homes happen to abut the park. After my walk, residents who live along the Emek Refaim stretch of the park held a protest, trying to raise awareness among passersby. Between 200 and 300 families who live in the area were slapped with massive tax bills by the city in mid-December, and told they had to pay by January 7 or face penalties. Some paid, and others have joined a class-action suit against the city, whose only mercy has been to offer to break the payments up into multiple installments.

Yochai Rotenberg is one of the many delivered a whopping tax bill to pick up the tab for the recent work. He’s been asked to pay NIS 27,000 in addition to the usual arnona [city municipal tax] bill that arrives in January. The city made the move based on the 1975 Jerusalem Municipal Assistance Law, which allows the municipality to charge residents when it makes street improvements, based on the size of their home.

“This is pure theft on the part of the municipality,” says Rotenberg, who is one of the spokesmen for a group of residents who are now fighting the municipality in court. “There are people who got these huge bills who are disabled, who are elderly people living on a fixed income, poor people living in housing projects. This is simply an exploitative and unacceptable way of relating to the people of this city.” The law, he says, is “draconian and needs to be taken off the books.”

A friend of mine, Kayla Ship, was one of the many surprised when a registered mail envelope arrived in her box in mid-December, giving her three weeks to pay NIS 11,000. She owns a small one-bedroom on Emek Refaim, but the city argues that her “backyard” is the park. She decided to go ahead and pay out of fear of getting socked with late fees.

“I also recognize that this park has also probably raised the property value of my apartment, possibly by more than 11,000 shekels,” she says. “But I believe this is what my arnona should be paying for.”

In response, a spokesman for the municipality says that the residents were charged not for the park, which was financed by the city’s budget and with the help of donors, but “for developing the road and sidewalks that were built as a substitute for the old dirt road that was in place from the Ottomans.”

I’m no longer reluctant to cross the tracks at night. And I feel glad to see a part of Jerusalem developing so nicely, and not in a way that makes international headlines. Yet when I think of the people suddenly presented with oppressive bills to make it happen, I can’t help but feel that an injustice is being done. But in Jerusalem, that is nothing new.

The Train Park.Credit: Yael Engelhart
Local residents show their protest signs.Credit: Yochai Rotenberg

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